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A dutiful daughter. A prince forced to find a bride. If the shoe fits... Once upon a time... When the Emperor's army comes recruiting, Mai signs up, seeing it as the perfect escape from her stepmother and a lifetime of drudgery. Armed with her mother's armour and a pair of magic shoes, Mai marches off to war...only to find herself sharing a tent with the General's arrogant nephew, Prince Yi. The best swordsman in the Empire, Prince Yi wants to make war, not love, but the Emperor insists this will be Yi's last campaign before he must marry. Prince Yi has never met his match...until now. Can one woman win the war and the prince's heart?
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About the Author
A tale in the Romance a Medieval Fairy Tale series
A dutiful daughter. A prince forced to find a bride. If the shoe fits...
Once upon a time...
When the Emperor's army comes recruiting, Mai pretends to be a man and signs up, seeing it as the perfect escape from her stepmother and a lifetime of drudgery. Armed with her mother's armour and a pair of magic shoes, Mai marches off to war...only to find herself sharing a tent with the General's arrogant nephew, Prince Yi.
The best swordsman in the Empire, Prince Yi wants to make war, not love, but the Emperor insists this will be Yi's last campaign before he must marry. Prince Yi has never met his match...until now.
Can one woman win the war and the prince's heart?
This book is dedicated to May.
No one else was crazy enough to encourage me to live the fairy tale.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 Demelza Carlton
Lost Plot Press
All rights reserved.
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"Now your father must teach you to dance." The words rang like a bell in Mai's head, for they were the last thing her mother said to her before she died.
But her father showed no signs of teaching her anything, if in fact he noticed her at all. So deeply was he mired in his grief that Mai wondered if he even remembered he had a daughter. He moved from snake to dragon to tiger, each pose as graceful as the last, until Father became a fighter and nothing more. She knew his prowess in battle honoured the ancestors and that Mother was one of them now, but with each blow he aimed at the air, he dishonoured her last wishes.
Mai was only a little girl, but she had made promises to her mother, too. She had vowed to love, care for and honour her father. So her sense of duty made her step into the courtyard and face the furious man who fought ghosts. His hand stopped a breath from her face.
"You should not be here, child," he said, his voice raw and breathless.
Her dark eyes brimmed with hope. "I wish to dance, too, Father," she said. "Show me."
He shook his head. "I only know the martial dance. It is the dance for highborn sons, not daughters."
"Mother said you must teach me."
Father dropped to his knees. "If it was her wish, then I must."
In the mud of the courtyard, Mai found her father again. His instructions seemed strange at first, but as her movements became more practiced and fluid, she understood that this was a dance, if different to the dances her mother had excelled in.
Every morning, she joined her father in the courtyard for their daily dance until the sun rose above the house walls and set his grey hair aglow. Many moons passed in this way, until one summer dawn. Father smiled, then he laughed and said, "You have your mother's grace, Mai. If she had ever picked up a sword, she would have been both deadly and beautiful."
Mai felt his eyes on her, reading her soul.
"I will not always be able to protect you, so perhaps it is fitting that you learn all that I can teach you, before I join the ancestors and your mother."
"You are not..." She swallowed. "You're not ill, are you, Father?"
"No, I'm not. But we never know how much time we will have, so we must make the most of it." He bowed his head. "Today, I will go on a journey. The new Emperor summons me to court, and I must obey."
Mai swallowed hard, blinking back tears. "Yes, Father. I will pray to Mother every day until you return."
Father smiled down sadly at his young daughter. "Living or dead, she will always bring me home."
Months passed, for it was a long journey from their mountain village to the capital. Every morning, Mai made an offering at the ancestral shrine, before moving to the courtyard to practice dancing alone. If she closed her eyes, she could almost believe her father practised beside her, and she longed for the day when he would return.
One evening, as she placed her mother's favourite flowers in the shrine, she heard a commotion in the distance. She followed the shouts to the gate, where she could see what looked like a procession making its way through the village. Her heart stuttered in fear. Surely...not a funeral procession?
None of the people headed toward her house was wearing white, she realised with relief, for even under the dust caking their clothes, the colours shone through.
Then something appeared around the corner of the last house in the village that made Mai stare even more intently. A box as big as a house, sitting on poles carried by several men, brought up the rear of the procession. This, too, was brightly coloured in red and gold, though dulled with the dust of travel. Curtains swayed in the doorway to the box, tempting Mai to climb inside.
The procession reached the gate and she raced across the courtyard to the veranda, where she would have a better view of everyone as they crowded into the yard. Especially the mysterious box.
The box bearers set their burden on the ground, right in front of the veranda steps. A man stepped forward and stuck his arm through the curtains, then pulled it out again, clasping a hand.
At the bottom of the curtains, a tiny, striped shoe poked out, not much larger than one of Mai's shoes. She clapped her hands in delight, hoping for a playmate. Yet the girl who emerged from the box was far older than Mai – she was a woman grown, despite her tiny feet. And the way her round belly bulged through her robes told Mai the girl would be a mother before long, just like the other women in the village. The woman swept past into the house without noticing Mai.
Mai sighed and sat down. No other children to play with, no mother to tell her stories, and no father to dance with. The servants wouldn't play with her, either. A more morose girl would have sat there and sulked, but Mai was a cheerful child, so instead she rose and made her way to the family shrine. Her mother might not be able to tell her stories, but she could tell her mother one, about the arrival of the round-bellied girl with the tiny feet.
Mai gathered some flowers from the garden and climbed the steps to the shrine, only to discover she wasn't the only one paying her respects to the ancestors.
"Father!" she exclaimed, racing across the tiles to throw herself into Fu's open arms. "I came to tell mother about the new girl!"
"Her name is Jing, and she will be your new stepmother," Fu said gravely.
Mai squirmed out of his grasp so she could stare up at him. "That girl is not my mother. She'll be mother to the babies in her round belly, just like Mrs Wu in the village."
"No, she is not your mother, and yes, she will give you sisters to play with. But Jing is used to life in the Imperial City, not a country house like ours. Will you do your best to help her, like a good daughter?" Fu asked.
"For you, Father, anything. She is our guest, and we must be hospitable to guests," Mai declared.
Fu laughed softly. "No, child, she is not a guest. Jing is here to stay. This is her home now, but I think she would like it if you treated her like an honoured guest." He eyed her. "She does not rise early, for court women don't like to see the dawn. So we will resume our dancing lessons tomorrow at dawn. The army with the best trained troops is assured victory, remember. Have you practised while I've been gone?"
Mai nodded happily. "Every morning, Father. It is not as much fun by myself, but now you are back, it will be better."
"Do you use your wooden sword every morning?" Fu demanded, eyeing Mai's thin arms.
She shook her head. "No, for it is too heavy."
"It is at first, but as your strength increases, you will grow used to it. A dancer's skill is equal parts balance and strength. Your balance is good, but we must work on your strength."
Mai bowed her head. "Yes, Father. I will practise now, so that tomorrow morning I will be ready."
He clapped her on the shoulder. "Good girl." Fu glanced at her mother's funeral tablet. "Da Ying would be proud to see you dance."
Mai beamed. "Thank you!" She skipped out into the courtyard in search of her practice sword, forgetting about stepmothers or sisters or strange boxes, for they were nothing compared to the honour she intended to bring her ancestors.
For the most part, Jing left Mai alone. Her increasingly rounded belly made her waddle around like the ducks in the pond at the bottom of the garden, to Mai's amusement, until one night Mai woke to shrill howls as first one, and then the other of her two half-sisters were born.
Lin and Lei's cries could be heard echoing through the house at all hours of the day and night, while Jing and the servants did everything in their power to quiet the babies.
Most days, Father could be found in the courtyard, training, as he had when Mai's mother had died, once again with a deep frown on his face. The frown turned into a smile whenever Mai joined him, though, and everything seemed right in the world once more.
For six years, they danced together every morning and night, as the two screaming babies turned into troublesome toddlers before growing into girls the same age as Mai had been when her stepmother first arrived. But when a child's piercing scream broke the dawn silence, Mai laid down her wooden practice sword and dashed into the house, certain Lin or Lei had been seriously hurt.
She found a manservant holding down Lei while Jing did something to the girl's feet that only made her howl louder. Jing shouted for bandages, which a maid handed to her. Jing wrapped the strips of silk around her daughter's feet before cramming them into a pair of shoes that even Mai knew were too small for her.
Lin watched with wide eyes until the manservant let go of her sister and seized her instead. Then Lin started to cry and struggle, begging her mother not to hurt her.
Jing grabbed the girl's shoulders. "Do you want to be a lady, and find a good husband, or be doomed to be an old maid like your sister Mai?"
"I don't need a husband," Mai protested. "I promised my mother I would take care of Father, always."
"There. Do you want to be a drudge all your life, or a lady who is carried everywhere in a litter?" Jing pressed.
Lin stopped struggling. "I want to be a lady, and a bride to a handsome husband, just like in the stories," she whispered.
She climbed up beside the still-sobbing Lei and Mai watched in horror as Jing broke her daughter's toes, bent them beneath the soles of her feet and bound the whole mess up in silk bandages. Now Mai understood why the too-small shoes suddenly fit Lei again, for Lin's shoes slid on over the bandages as if she were years younger.
"There," Jing said, planting her hands on her hips. "Now, you must walk around the garden ten times before you may have breakfast. Go, go!" She shooed the girls off the bed.
Both of them cried out as they took their first steps, begging their mother to let them sit down again, for their feet hurt too much to walk.
"Ladies must have lotus feet like mine, or no husband will have you," Jing said. "You will walk, no matter how much it hurts, or you will not eat. Do you hear me?"
Both girls nodded. Holding hands, they hobbled outside.
Mai folded her arms across her chest. "How can you do such a thing to your own daughters? It is barbaric!"
When Jing turned to face her, Mai was surprised to see tears streaming down her stepmother's face. "I do what must be done, to give my girls a future. A little pain now is nothing compared to a lifetime of being unwanted. My mother spared me until my feet had almost grown too big, and I was lucky to get a husband at all. If not for the Emperor's command and your father's ignorance of court fashions, I would not have been married, for no other nobleman would have me. My daughters will have such tiny feet that even princes will marvel at them."
Mai drew herself up. "You will not do such a thing to me. If you try to touch my feet, I will make you rue the day you were born." She wasn't sure how, but she had heard a great hero in one of her father's stories say such a thing, so it must mean something very frightening.
Jing sagged, looking as haggard as though it was her own toes that had been broken today and not her daughters'. "No, I will not," she agreed. "You are too old, and your feet are too big. I should have bound your feet when I first came, but my pregnancy and the girls...I could not. You will never find a good husband now, Mai. Not with feet as big as yours. Just like your common-born mother."
"My mother was not common! She was a general's daughter, like me, and her feet were perfectly sized to suit my father!" Mai snapped.
Jing marched to the cupboard and took down a pair of shoes Mai recognised as her mother's favourite. Beside them, Jing placed a pair of her own. "Times have changed since your mother was a girl. Perhaps she could make a good marriage with feet like this, but we have a new Emperor now, and in his court, they would call her an iron lotus, fit only to marry a fieldhand."
Mai stared at her mother's red silk shoes beside Jing's tiny striped slippers. "My mother's shoes were magical. She wore those the night my father fell in love with her, she said, and she kept them. She said the ancestors had blessed them with balance in all things, so that when she wore them, her balance was perfect, too."
Jing shook her head. "You don't understand, do you? It doesn't matter how well a girl dances any more. It is all about the size of her feet. You will never marry." She thrust the shoes at Mai. "Take these huge things away. Treasure them if you must, as a memory of times that will never come again. No amount of magic in your mother's shoes will make you marriageable. When you pray to the ancestors, pray that I bear your father a son, for with no husband, you will have no children to take care of you in your old age. No one to bring flowers to your shrine once you are gone."
Jing tossed her head and minced away before Mai could reply.
Weighted down with sorrow that her stepmother could hurt her sisters so, Mai made her way back to the courtyard. Her father was nowhere to be seen and her two sobbing sisters had collapsed on the steps, in too much pain to continue their tortuous circuit. She beckoned a maid over to tend to the girls, before resuming her search for her father. He would put a stop to this, she was certain.
Mai found her father in the shrine, lighting her mother's favourite incense. Normally, she waited until he was finished praying, but her sisters' pain would not wait. "Do you know what she has done?" Mai demanded. "She is torturing the girls. Breaking their bones! They will never learn to dance as you taught me. They can barely walk! And for what? To find husbands? What husband would ask for his wife to have her feet broken when she's just a baby, long before he even meets her, so she can wear smaller shoes?"
Father shook his head. "The new Emperor is nothing like the old. Many things have changed. Jing swears to me what she does is for our daughters' future. A future I fear I do not understand any more. I will not fight when I cannot win. The court of my youth is gone, along with the Emperor I served. It is a strange new world we live in, Mai. Your mother and I sought to protect you from it, but..." He squinted at her. "Are those her shoes?"
With trembling hands, Mai surrendered the shoes to her father. "Is it true that she wore them the night you fell in love?"
"She wore these every night, and every day, too," Father said. "I never saw her in any others until we were married. They were a gift from her fairy godmother, she said, enchanted with balance. Her godmother gave them to her after she got in trouble for losing her shoes. These shoes can never be lost. They will always find their way back to their rightful owner." He glanced down. "They should fit you now. Why don't you try them on?"
Wear her mother's magical shoes? Mai's breath caught in her throat, but she did as her father told her. Slipping one bare foot, then the other into the shoes, she found he was right. They fit her perfectly.
"You will be as beautiful as your mother one day, and even more graceful, I think. When it is time to find a husband for you, I will have plenty of men to choose from, who would beg for your hand," Father said.
"I don't want a husband, Father. I promised Mother I would take care of you," Mai replied mutinously, pressing her lips together.
"That is Jing's job now," Father said with a sigh. "And her son, if she manages to bear one. You are young yet. A man might catch your eye the way I caught your mother's eye. Then, I will have no choice but to make the match you choose."
Mai looked her father in the eye. "I will never choose another man over you, Father. I promise."
Fu kissed the top of his daughter's head. "You are a good girl. Do not think too harshly of your stepmother. Your mother wanted you prepared for a different life, while your sisters will find husbands at court, like their mother did. Court life requires sacrifices that I hope you will never have to make."
He had that right, Mai thought but did not say. Not if all her ancestors and every dragon in the country teamed up to drag her to the Emperor's palace would she set foot inside the place. Especially if she had to bind bits of her body and pretend to be something she wasn't.
Years passed as Jing taught her daughters court dances for their absurdly tiny feet, and Mai practised increasingly complex martial dances with her father. On her sixteenth birthday, he gave her a sword made especially for her. While Mai stood speechless with joy at such a thoughtful gift, her stepmother trotted into the courtyard with a scowl on her face.
"That is not a suitable gift for a girl!" Jing said. Ten years had not been kind to her. She had tried to give Fu more children, but none of them survived very long. "You should return it to the armoury, to await the birth of your son." She patted her belly with considerable satisfaction.
Mai suppressed a groan. When Jing was pregnant, she made Mai do everything for her, including running errands she should send servants to do. Though she knew her father wanted a son, she hoped Jing would miscarry early this time, instead of giving birth to a stillborn child. Better than nine months of hope only to have them dashed at the end.
"If you bear me a son, my blacksmith will craft him his own sword," Fu said firmly. "This belongs to Mai. She needs it to practice, for a wooden sword is no longer enough."
"She needs a husband," Jing grumbled, shuffling back inside.
"For your next birthday, I will see about finding you a husband," Father said. "But in the meantime...will you dance with me, Mai?"
Mai smiled. "Gladly, Father."
Jing's time came early and the house rang with her screams even as the midwife tried to quiet her. Mai's father prayed in the shrine, where he could not hear the screaming, so when a messenger arrived at the gate, it was up to Mai to meet the man.
He wore the Emperor's colours of red and gold, and the scroll case he carried on his belt blended in with his robes so completely Mai almost didn't see it until he reached for it.
She instinctively dropped into a defensive pose, thinking that he was reaching for a blade.
The man laughed. "Easy, boy. I bring a message from the Emperor. Though it is a declaration of war, it is not war on Yeong Fu, but a call for him to provide troops. Perhaps if you are lucky, he will send you."
Mai opened her mouth to tell the messenger that she was no boy, nor would her father waste her life in a war against the rebellious cities to the north, but a particularly loud scream issued from the house.
"Sounds like war is already here," the messenger commented. He thrust a scroll into her hands. "Your father might go to war just to get some peace and quiet." Laughing to himself, the man headed down the road toward the town.
Mai itched to unfasten the scroll and read the message it contained, but not even she dared to break the Emperor's seal. Instead, she carried it to her father where he knelt in the family shrine.
"What is it? Another dead daughter?" Fu asked without turning around.
Mai moistened her dry mouth. "No, Father. It is a summons from the Emperor. Calling you to war."
Fu made a disgusted sound. "No doubt throwing more lives away, trying to reclaim one of the lost cities in the north when it is too little, too late. Only a strategist like your mother could take those northern cities, but not even she could devise a way to hold them. The northerners breed so much faster than we do, and their would-be king sends them against us in greater and greater numbers. Better to broker a treaty than to besiege some northern city. The worst policy is to attack cities, as any decent general should know."
"But he is calling you to war, Father. You are the greatest general in the kingdom." Mai dropped to her knees beside her father. "If anyone can win, it is you." Mai's eyes shone with admiration as she gazed at him.
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